Wednesday 16 October 2019

The John Delaney files: The tough tackler, smooth operator who has often courted controversy

He was the no-nonsense centre-half who become the best-paid sports administrator in the land. But FAI boss and OCI vice-president John Delaney has never been far away from the ­headlines and this week, he was centre stage again... this time for what he chose not to say about the scandal in Rio.

FAI Chief Executive John Delaney speaking at the FAI AGM in 2006
FAI Chief Executive John Delaney speaking at the FAI AGM in 2006
FAI chief executive John Delaney celebrates with Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni after qualifying for Euro 2012
With IOC President Pat Hickey and girlfriend Emma English at the Sweden game in Paris during Euro 2016
With equipment officer Dick Redmond after qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Just a month ago, everything seemed to be running perfectly for the FAI's colourful boss John Delaney.

The ballad-singing fans' friend, who runs Irish soccer on a salary of €360,000 a year, was given a standing ovation from delegates at the AGM of the FAI.

The tributes were effusive. Gerry Tully, a delegate from Roscommon, spoke for many when he said: "We'd like to thank John Delaney for embellishing the image of Irish football."

As the country's best-paid sports administrator, Delaney seemed impregnable, and few in the FAI are prepared to question his authority. As one football manager puts it: "There is no risk of a coup d'état".

Not only had Ireland performed well enough to reach the second round of the European championships in the preceding weeks, in the days that followed, Delaney was anointed by Pat Hickey as his eventual successor as President of the Olympics Council or Ireland.

On the first day of the Games, Hickey gave a revealing insight into how the OCI was run. The way Hickey talked, it seemed like a fiefdom, with the top job being passed on between friends. He said Delaney, already an OCI vice-president, was the 'favourite' to follow in his footsteps and take the role from 2020. In the interim, vice-president Willie O'Brien would take on the role.

"Our understanding of it is that Willie will do a stint up until Tokyo, and then the favourite at the moment to take over from him is John Delaney from the FAI," Hickey remarked. "John is very popular."

Although Delaney was not present in Rio, the FAI boss has accompanied Hickey to many big international events as vice-president of the OCI.

The pair sat next to each other ringside as Katie Taylor fought at the Olympics in London, with British Prime Minister David Cameron just behind them. There were high fives all round as Taylor won her semi-final bout.

The FAI boss also joined Hickey for one of the proudest moments of his career, the opening of the European Games in Azerbaijan last year. The Games in the tyrannical oil-rich republic had been Hickey's brainchild.

It was no surprise that Delaney was being groomed to take over from the older man. In many ways, the pair are both cut from the same cloth.

Just as Hickey got to the top by gathering support from the smaller sports associations, Delaney relies on the backing of the smaller clubs and minor leagues and officials for his power base in the FAI.

One former senior official, who has dealt with Delaney, tells Review: "He has been good at helping out the small clubs when they were looking for capital grants from the government and when they need other help."

An eventual succession as Ireland's Olympics boss may have been the plan, but this month's events have shown how the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.

Delaney's future has been cast into doubt by the tumultuous events of the past fortnight, with Hickey arrested in a Rio hotel room at dawn, and facing allegations of ticket touting.

Although by Thursday of this week Delaney had maintained a stony silence on the affair, he has also found himself plunged into the controversy as a vice-president of the OCI.

When Delaney gave an interview on a Waterford radio station to pay tribute to ex-FAI president Milo Corcoran, the elephant of the Olympic ticket crisis was not only in the room, it was virtually curling its trunk around the microphone.

Although Delaney was not in Rio for the Olympics, a Brazilian judge authorised police to seize his passport. Rio police said they wanted to interview Delaney and his fellow vice-president Willie Reilly as "the big guys in the OCI".

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on Delaney's part, but TDs came out and urged the FAI chief to make a statement on the Rio controversy.

Suddenly, with Hickey banged up in Bangu prison, having been arrested in his bathrobe, the career path of his protégé Delaney and his future as Ireland's foremost Olympic official seem a lot less certain.

John Delaney knows what it is like from the bitter experience of his own father Joe to be at the centre of a ticketing controversy. Joe Delaney senior was himself one of the top "Blazers" in the FAI as honorary treasurer. He resigned in 1996 following the 'Night of the Long Knives' during which it was revealed that he had had dealings with a mysterious ticket tout known as "George the Greek". He stepped aside after he issued a statement that he had paid £110,000 himself from his own pocket to wipe out a shortfall in the FAI's World Cup ticket account.

The saga, during which other senior officials in the FAI left their posts, was known as Merriongate.

John Delaney, then 27, was in the Westbury Hotel that evening to support his father as his downfall happened.

Not long afterwards, Delaney Junior was just starting at the bottom rung in sports administration, becoming a Waterford delegate to the FAI.

Within a decade he had climbed to the very top, taking over as chief executive.

He likes to debunk as a myth the idea that his father's resignation spurred him on to reach top in the FAI as a form of redemption. But whether by accident or design, that is how it worked out.

Friends from his youth recall him as a no-nonsense centre-half and tough competitor on the pitch as a youngster for St Michael's FC in Tipperary town where he spent a large part of his childhood. "He would sooner go through you than around you," said one teammate.

Visiting the club, he likes to show visitors a framed photo of the club's 1984 Munster Youths cup final squad.

Delaney worked at the Irish Pride bakery in Tipperary in the 1990s before setting up his own businesses. He started his own baking venture, Cameo Cakes in Tralee, before moving into the transport business.

Within two years of becoming a delegate to the League of Ireland, he was elected to the main FAI board of management.

He was elected to succeed Brendan Menton as honorary treasurer in 2001. The notorious incident at Saipan in 2002 when Roy Keane left the Irish squad on the eve of the World Cup was said by most observers of the machinations of the FAI to be the making of the young official.

While other officials floundered and Keane fell out with his manager amid scenes of chaos, the sharp-suited Delaney seemed like a voice of reason in front of the camera.

He was portrayed as young, forward-looking and progressive, in contrast to the amateurish older officials, and this later helped to propel him into the role of chief executive.

At the start he may have been seen as ushering in a bright new dawn for the FAI, but there have plenty of controversies along the way.

At one time he was earning a stunning salary of €450,00, almost €100,000 more than the US president. He has said of his vast income, which has since been cut to €360,000: "My employers pay me a salary and they are happy to pay it. I've been offered bigger salaries to move elsewhere and that's known to my board."

Delaney has argued that he was offered "a seven-figure salary" in a non-sporting job in the UK and another big job in sport.

With his effective glad-handling style, party politics could have been an option, and Eamon Dunphy has described him as "an astute politician". He was once asked by a Fianna Fáil minister to run as a TD in either Waterford or South Tipperary, but he declined.

Delaney is renowned for his love of a sing-song, and there are plenty of stories from friends of legendary sessions such as the evening at the Mexican ambassador's residence when he sang the 'Rooster Song', accompanied by the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney on tin whistle.

Occasionally this convivial nature can land him in trouble, such as the time he was filmed singing the republican ballad about IRA man 'Joe McDonnell' after an Ireland friendly with the USA in Dublin.

He apologised for any offence caused.

During the European Championship in 2012, he was regularly seen enjoying a drink and mingling with fans. At one point in Sopot, he was carried aloft by the fans minus his shoes as they chanted: "Shoes off for the boys in green."

Delaney also made headlines when he admitted that the FAI had secured payment from Fifa - later revealed to be €5m - in the form of a loan, as a payback for Thierry Henry's handball, which prevented Ireland from making the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Delaney described a confrontation with Fifa president Sepp Blatter.

"I told him how I felt about him," said Delaney in an interview with Ray D'Arcy. "There were some expletives used and we came to an agreement."

At one point the interview with D'Arcy took a bizarre turn when Delaney mentioned an exchange with Blatter where he felt that the Fifa boss was eyeing up his girlfriend, Emma English.

More recently, those who deal with Delaney have found him a lot more guarded. There are much fewer interviews or YouTube clips showing him enjoying the craic with the fans.

Among the most vocal critics of Delaney are those who champion the League of Ireland. They complain that in striking contrast to Delaney's own high salary, the league is being run on a pittance. Delaney has himself described the league himself as a "difficult child".

When the FAI recently announced an investment package for the clubs of €100,000, some football people hoped that it would be €100,000 for each club. They were stunned to discover that it was to be split between 20 clubs, and amounted to €5,000 each.

Brian Kerr, the former Irish manager, was furious and said supporters of the league were frustrated by its poor facilities, including the state of the pitches and the dressing rooms.

On the other hand, Delaney's ­defenders argue he has professionalised the FAI and helped to leave the legacy of the Aviva stadium, when Irish soccer had been struggling for years to find a home.

It may be a stadium of which football fans can be proud, but the FAI has also been left with debts of €40m, partly blamed on a poorly-executed scheme to sell corporate tickets.

When Hickey mentioned 2020 as the year for his anointed one John Delaney to take over as Olympics boss, it was perhaps the ideal scenario for the FAI boss. In that year, Dublin is due to host some games in the European Championship.

It would be the perfect time for Delaney to ride off into the sunset with a plum job. The post does not carry a salary, but it has considerable prestige, the potential for international advancement and lavish expenses.

With the Irish Olympic movement now in the depths of its biggest ever controversy, however, these plans are clouded in uncertainty.

CV: The Mr Big of football


Born in 1967, the eldest son of Joe and Joan Delaney. He went to school at Abbey CBS in Thurles and played hurling for Arravale Rovers and soccer for St Michael's and Tralee Celtic.

Other jobs

Before he became a full-time FAI official he ran cake and logistics businesses. He has the voluntary post of vice-president Olympics Council of Ireland.

How he started in the FAI

In 1997 he became the Waterford United delegate to the League of Ireland and the FAI. He rose all the way up the organisation to become chief executive in 2005.

How he became famous

When the Irish squad went into meltdown in the Saipan affair in 2002, the then treasurer became the FAI's frontman in Dublin, and performed capably in front of the cameras.


Gets by on a salary of €360,000, a cut from €450,000.


Has been approached by Fianna Fáil to run as a candidate, but was spotted on the campaign trail with Labour's Alan Kelly at the last election.


Former model Emma English, who he tearfully defended from cyberbullies during an interview in 2014 with Pat Kenny on Newstalk.

Biggest coup

Getting €5m off Fifa boss Sepp Blatter as compensation for Thierry Henry's notorious handball that helped to stop Ireland qualifying for World Cup in 2010.

High Point

The opening of the Aviva stadium in 2010.

Low point

Appointing the inexperienced Steve Staunton as Irish manager in 2006 after promising a "world-class coach". There were calls for Delaney's head after a poor performance against San Marino.

Musical memories

Got into a spot of bother when he was filmed singing the republican ballad 'Joe McDonnell' after an Ireland friendly with the USA in Dublin. He later apologised.

Indo Review

The Left Wing: Welcome to Irish rugby's biggest week - is an upset on the cards?

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport